Say you‘re physically fit, 5’5” and 140 pounds. According to dietary guidelines, you’re well within the healthy weight range for your height. But if you’ve heard about the widely publicized Harvard Medical School study of body weight and health risks, you may be wondering if you need to diet. By the standards of that study, you’re about 20 pounds over the optimal weight and have a higher risk than thinner women of developing cancer and heart disease.
In this study of 115.000 women, the authors found that the women least likely to die prematurely were those who had never smoked and weighed 15 percent less than the average American woman (or about 119 pounds, if you’re 5’5”). Other studies have linked obesity to increased health risks, but this one seemed to say that even average weight women should worry.
A closer look at the stuffy reveals that there is little cause for alarm. The increased risk was quite small until a woman was heavier than average (around 165 pounds, if you’re 5’5”). And experts point out that the study did not emphasize the women’s diet and exercise patterns, which may be more important to health than what you weigh.
“We are all genetically different, and some of us are thinner than others,” says Tim Byers, M.D., professor of preventive medicine at the University of Colorado School of Medicine in Denver, who wrote the editorial that accompanied the study. “If you’re eating a good diet and you’re physically active, you’re going to define your own [healthy] weight,” says Dr. Byers. “We need to focus a little less on the numbers – weight per se – and more on the behaviors that are most important, like being physically active and eating healthy foods.”
If you’re not genetically lean, trying to get down to rail thinness is unrealistic and possibly in healthy because you’d have to diet stringently or exercise to an extreme to maintain that lower weight.